Don't Blame McCain

What’s going on inside the McCain campaign? Maybe I’ve read too much Conan Doyle and Le Carre. Maybe too much of my young professional life was spent in the company of people who built satellites to detect faint electronic signals in enemy lands. Nevertheless, there are too many faint signals coming out of McCain’s inner circle to ignore. And they do not bode well for the candidate.

McCain’s June 3 speech — designed to rob Obama of some media attention — might have been a good idea and it might not. But it was poorly-written, badly staged and obviously a text McCain wasn’t comfortable with. McCain’s themes were good, but the speech made him sound petty, almost as if he were a challenger competing against an incumbent Obama.

So some in McCain’s camp convinced him to grasp for media attention on Obama’s night, and then pushed him to make a speech that wasn’t right for him. And then?

These supposed “advisers” and “strategists” immediately leaked to the McCain-hostile press that the only problem was McCain, not the speech or how it was managed as a media event. All you need to know about these problem “insiders” is in the Politico piece by Jonathan Martin entitled, “McCain Bumbles Delivery.”

Martin refers to people among McCain’s “inner circle” who believe that the, “…the visual and stylistic contrast with Obama on Tuesday night was both plain to see and painful in the extreme.” He quotes one McCain adviser saying the contrast between McCain’s speaking skills and Obama’s was, “Not good,” and “It’s never going to be his strong suit, and it will always be Obama’s.” So McCain’s “inner circle” believes that a guy who’s spent decades in politics doesn’t know how to make a decent speech?

If that’s not bad enough Martin writes, “What most everybody inside and out of McCain’s campaign agreed upon was that the address was well-written,” and goes on to quote another (?) McCain aide saying, “It just wasn’t delivered the best…He has to get sharper on delivery.”

How much do you want to bet that the guys who wrote the speech or convinced McCain to give it (or both) are the same ones badmouthing him to Politico?

It’s depressingly familiar. This is the same sort of problem that hurt Fred Thompson’s campaign badly, when purported “aides” and “advisers” were — on the day of the Iowa caucus — leaking the falsehood that Thompson would drop out and endorse McCain if Thompson didn’t win Iowa.

It might even be the same guy. At this point, the best addition to McCain’s team might be a cloned version of CIA mole-hunter James Jesus Angleton.

So June 3 was an opportunity missed. And there are only 148 days until the election. But in that time, if Sen. McCain sees the need and acts decisively on it, he can revitalize his strategy and realign the debate.

Sen. McCain still has problems with some conservatives. We have no desire to be among them. In time of war, America cannot afford an on-the-job-training presidency that would be Barack Obama’s. Here are a few suggestions for Sen. McCain. It’s not an exhaustive list, but let’s just get a few ideas out there to start the conversation.

First, who wrote the June 3 speech for Sen. McCain? Who convinced him that this speech was the right one to give on the occasion of launching the final stage of the campaign? Whoever they are, Sen. McCain should get rid of them. And make sure that the media knows who is — and isn’t — a McCain “insider.”

As President Reagan often said, personnel is policy. In this campaign, there’s still time — as business author Jim Collins wrote — to get the right people on the bus and the wrong people off. Sen. McCain would benefit from having a wider “inner circle” once the problem people are banished to political Siberia.

Second, Sen. McCain should take his team on a two-day retreat to dissect, debate and re-form their strategy as needs be. Does he want to change how he is positioned as the elder statesman? Does McCain want to do as French President Sarkozy did, to run against his own party’s outgoing president? To some degree, McCain has to because President Bush is enormously unpopular. But in doing so, he risks much. Instead of just pointing out Bush’s failures, McCain needs to stress the fact that there has been no terrorist attack in the United States since 9-11. And the reason for that is President Bush’s decision to fight the enemy on his home ground.

Third, Sen. McCain could benefit by moving aggressively to unify the conservative base of the party with his campaign. As a sitting senator, he can introduce legislation to put stakes in the ground around which conservatives can rally.

The economy, even more than the war, will top voters’ agenda this year. Obama wants to raise the capital gains tax for “fairness” despite the fact that every credible economist says raising that tax will result in less government revenue and stifle investment. Why not lead off with a Capitol Hill event to announce a McCain-Coburn bill to further reduce capital gains, outlaw earmarks and make the Bush tax cuts permanent? It wouldn’t be new to propose a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman, but would be another stake in the ground.

Mr. McCain has said he has learned the lesson of the 2007 immigration debate. He should introduce a bill that proves it, partnering with those who want the borders secured before anything else is done. Instead of McCain-Kennedy, why not a McCain-Cornyn bill? To assuage conservatives’ fears about economy-killing global warming bills, why not craft something that brings down the cost of energy instead of raising it? How about a McCain-Inhofe bill to replace Warner-Lieberman?

Sen. McCain might think about how radically secularist his opponents are. All those Reagan Democrats and blue-collar Republicans often wonder why the Republicans don’t stand up for prayer and the flag. Sen. McCain could ignite some voter enthusiasm by speaking out against liberals’ efforts to take the phrase, “One nation under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance. Barack Obama and the rest of the Democrat-ACLU Party would be backpedaling for months after.

In his speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference in February — at the moment he clinched the nomination — Sen. McCain promised to listen to conservatives.

To begin making good on that promise, he could invite conservative leaders to participate in the campaign strategy retreat I propose — especially people with whom he’s been very uncomfortable at times — to talk about the way forward in his campaign. He should include some of those in the Senate and House with whom he has disagreed strongly, experts from conservative think tanks, and even some conservative journalists. There’s no one who doesn’t benefit from speaking with Charles Krauthammer, George Will and Mark Steyn.

Lawyers always say that free advice is worth what you pay for it, and that’s sometimes true. But the most costly advice is paid for not only in dollars but in votes: it comes from people whose goals are not the same as yours.


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